It was during the final few weeks of his career that Australia’s greatest ever bull rider, Troy Dunn, knew his sport was about to kill him.
He had been going 20 years and had won every award going.
The second youngest of five children, and the son of a bull rider, Dunn began riding calves at the age of nine, in 1976.
By 1990, he won the Australian title and, by 1995, he won the first of two Professional Bull Riders world finals in Las Vegas.
Then in 1998, he took the world championships by winning the most points over the year in a series of bull-riding events.
Troy Dunn was more than the best Australian bull rider. He was champion of the world.
By 2005, he was 38 – a geriatric age in a sport where most riders retire in their early 30s – and he knew that it was time to get out. He had lost all craving to ride a tonne of enraged, bucking bovine flesh for eight seconds.
The last mile was proving to be the hardest. If only he could make the world finals in Vegas one more time.
Then six weeks before his final ride, he was knocked out cold for the first time in his professional career.
‘‘Everyone gets knocked out, but I had never been knocked out,’’ Dunn said.
‘‘The bull turned around and I got in there too much and his head hit me on the side of the head.
‘‘I was out for about 10 minutes.
‘‘During my recovery, I got this mad notion in my head that I was going to die in the world finals. No matter what I did, I couldn’t shake this notion.
‘‘I had heard of other people who had died, where they had a premonition.’’
Death is not as common in bull riding as you would think, but is a real possibility.
It usually comes when the rider is bucked from the bull’s back and the animal’s hooves stomp on the rider’s chest.
It says something about Dunn’s one-eyed devotion to the sport that he never for a moment considered backing out. He briefly considered wearing a helmet, before his mate and fellow rider, Brendon Clark, stomped on the idea.
‘‘You’ve always been a cowboy’s cowboy and worn a hat,’’ Clark said. ‘‘You’re not going to wear a helmet while you’re travelling with me.’’
So every day during the finals, Dunn would leave his family in their room at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas, believing it to be the last time he would see his wife or two children.
His only protection was a Bible verse he had sought out, written down, and kept in the pocket of his jeans. It’s still there.
‘‘Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture,’’ it said.
Then came the last ride of his career.
Dunn knew he had not done well enough to reach the finals and compete for the $1million top prize money, but could still net a useful $20,000 if he won the round.
‘‘This was it. I got on him. I was ready for it and was resigned. I learned to trust in the Lord and put my life in his hands,’’ Dunn said.
‘‘I jumped on the bull, and he turned around and kicked back, made a couple of rounds and then came back to the chutes.
‘‘The gate was open where I had come out and he bucked back to the chutes and back in.
‘‘You never get off on the rails. All the blokes who had helped me get on were sitting at the back of the chute.
‘‘The bull was jumping and kicking and I leant off to grab the top rail where all the boys were.
‘‘He was going out and he took my feet so I was lying flat and looking up.
‘‘I remember distinctly looking up and seeing all my buddies’ faces. I thought ‘this is it’.
‘‘If the bull had carried turning around, the back feet were going to get me in the chest. That’s what gets people, the back feet.
‘‘It was happening fast at the time but it’s slow motion now, thinking back.
‘‘I hit the ground and it hit the air out of me. Then, I looked up and saw the bull heading away.
‘‘I thought I haven’t got any air but I’ve got my bloody life.’’
It was the last time Dunn rode a bull, and that’s fine by him.
‘‘I was never someone who was concerned about getting hurt,’’ he said.
‘‘I liked being the kamikaze and I never rode with any thought of my self-preservation.
‘‘You have to not fear what the outcome is at all. If you care you don’t do much good.
‘‘It’s a young reckless man’s game. You put yourself out there and I believe that he who hesitates is lost, that was one of my favourite sayings. The harder you go in, the better off you are.’’
These days, Dunn spends most of his time raising beef cattle on his Queensland property, but he also teaches bull riding and is president of the Australian arm of the Professional Bull Riders.
The organisation started in the United States in 1992 – coming to Australia in 2006 – with the aim of taking bull riding out of rodeos and jazzing it up for a more general audience in entertainment centres and through cable TV.
It has been a phenomenon, now reaching 100million television views and two million spectators to the live events each year.
Dunn was in Wollongong recently to announce the launch of the new Australian Cup Series would be held in WIN Entertainment Centre on Saturday, November 10. The event, dubbed by organisers as ‘‘the toughest sport on dirt’’, will take place on 500 tonnes of soil imported into the arena for the occasion.
One of the reckless young men who will be taking part on the night is two-time Australian champion Jock Connolly (pictured above).
Growing up on a macadamia nut farm outside Charters Towers in Queensland, Connolly, learned to ride horses through the odd ‘‘poddy ride’’, or six-second starter ride on a calf, as a young boy.
It wasn’t until he was 22 that he rode his first bull and was immediately smitten.
‘‘I was hooked straight up. You can’t control that beast – I treat it like life,’’ he said.
‘‘You can either go with the bull, you can go with life, and if you step off the path it’s going to hurt you.
‘‘If the bull’s going left and you go right, it’s going to hurt. Bull riding has changed a lot of my life.’’
When he was at high school, his teachers told him he would go nowhere in life. Then the mother of a girl he was dating told her daughter to leave him alone. ‘‘He’s just going to be a dead-shit ringer all his life,’’ she said.
Leaving school to become a jockey at the start of year 10, then giving it up because he became too heavy, it seemed for a while that her prediction was coming true.
Connolly has endured a string of injuries in a sport that, at his peak, earned him about $45,000 a year in prize money.
Last month, a bull stood on the middle of his lower back, tearing the muscles around his ribcage, and then dragged him across the ring.
Ignoring the pain, Connolly immediately got on his next bull, which bucked him and horned him in the arm.
‘‘At the end, I went out the back and was on my hands and knees and couldn’t breathe,’’ Connolly said.
‘‘I can’t shave my head because it’s covered in scars – horses, bulls, it gets smoked all the time.’’
Then in 2010, he had to take six months off after a bull called Rough Neck crushed two vertebrae in his neck.
‘‘He just rolled me up like a Tally Ho paper. I tried to get up and just couldn’t walk,’’ Connolly said.
‘‘I was taped from my fingertip to my shoulder. I had torn muscles around my rib-cage, groin wraps and then I twisted my ankle after I got off my last bull.
‘‘I was a walking mummy.’’
The Professional Bull Riders Australian Cup Series comes to WIN Entertainment Centre on November 10. Tickets on sale through ticketek.com.au.